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The Hothouse

by Angela Volkov 10 months ago in Fantasy · updated 8 months ago
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When you're trapped in a glasshouse, the fact that you can see through the walls doesn't matter

A palm cockatoo, colloquially known as a black “macaw” (Image by BangKod001)

Sweat prickles my brow. As always, I can’t be sure if the cause is the Gardener’s latest witch-hunt or merely the humidity.

'You’ve used pesticides on the tomatoes again, haven’t you?' The Gardener’s eyes rove the flower beds as if he expects to find a discarded canister lying in plain view.

I say nothing. A reddish-brown speck on the Gardener’s shirt catches my eye; it’s a stink beetle of some sort. As if uncomfortable under the weight of my gaze, it crawls over his collar and out of sight. I sigh.

'No. I haven’t.'

The Gardener scratches the back of his sunburnt neck and eyes me with suspicion. 'Then why can I smell it?'

That's the million-dollar question. Some winter mornings, knowing it’ll be hours before the Gardener makes his way to the hothouse, I’ll give the zucchinis a quick spritz to save them winding up the slugs’ supper. He never catches a whiff of pesticides then. Without fail, it’s only on the days I haven’t used any that the Gardener accuses me.

***

It feels as though I was born into the hothouse, less its indentured servant and more its lifelong prisoner, even long after my escape. The Gardener built the hothouse single-handedly, or so I’m told, and in those early days, conditions were tolerable, even good. I have faint memories of the Gardener teaching me how to prune the tomato plants, patiently at that.

I suspect the downhill slide, the degradation, began the day pesticides were banned from the hothouse. I made many attempts to convince the Gardener to at least use essential oils, but those too he considered poison. Nor would he listen when I suggested creating sticky traps to thwart the mites, flies and aphids that were slowly, but surely, devouring all that had once thrived within the hothouse walls.

In those early days, the Gardener visited only in the evenings and so our hours barely overlapped. I’d crouch in the dark, listening to the rustling of the rhubarb as it grew, illuminated by candlelight, neither awaiting nor dreading his return. Thinking back, I must have longed for the lights to be switched on, if nothing else.

The Gardener would enter the hothouse in a towering temper, his black Macaw, prized for the bluish tinge of its feathers, riding atop his shoulder. The bird, mistreated by its previous master, was glad to call the hothouse home. Every evening, even before grooming itself, it would fly across the length of the hothouse and begin the painstaking task of plucking tomatoes from the vine.

We were not allowed to eat the fruit unpeeled, so the Macaw did that too. The Gardener had once been halfway through a particularly succulent tomato when the skin stuck to the roof of his mouth. Ever since, the sight of another person (or bird) eating tomatoes with the skin on caused him to splutter, both with embarrassed rage and visceral recollection.

As the years went by, the Gardener spent more time sitting idly on a crate, poring over catalogues whose glossy pages extolled the benefits of various overpriced thermometers and overpowered heat propagators. The Gardener insisted on repairing the old propagator himself, for he was an expert in all things, until the day it started belching smoke. Being asthmatic, the Gardener had suffered the worst for it, and could deny the need for a replacement no longer. This was typical of life within the hothouse.

As for the Macaw, its days were unchanged, save for even longer hours spent toiling. The bird busied itself with trellising plants, pecking at pests, and tending to the needs of the Gardner who was rather a hothouse flower himself. After sunset, the bird would retire to its perch to diligently peel tomatoes, dropping them into a bowl with a fleshy, wet thud.

In rare moments of rest, the Macaw would turn the handle of a hand-cranked music box, gripping the wooden perch with its other claw, head cocked to one side. Mostly the bird played Für Elise, at least, it did so when out of earshot of the Gardener who much preferred Brahms. It was at such times that I’d seek out the great black bird and relate to it the day’s indignities.

'He dog whistles and gestures to the zucchinis, often while I’m already watering them. It’s not that I mind tending to the zucchinis, not really, only I don’t like when he dog whistles, and I’ve told—'

'—Caw! What a joker!'

I sigh, but plough ahead. 'The Gardener said I had to do it immediately, that it was a disgrace the leaves had been wilting all day, crawling with slugs and snails. And he was so angry when he’d said it. Only, he’d been sitting there for hours, and I’d only come in five minutes ago…'

That’s right about when I’d look up to see the bird fast asleep, its head nestled under an inky wing. I would not disturb it, however, recalling the time I found it walking tight, agitated circles on the ground, for having not the strength to clean the slug slime from its claws, the Gardener had forbidden use of its perch.

Poor thing.

***

For all his working life the Gardener had grown vegetables, many placing in the County Fair. When earnings dwindled, the Gardener announced he would concentrate all his efforts on a single scheme, that of growing a black rose; perfectly formed and dark as midnight, it was sure to win a handsome prize.

Was it impossible? Perhaps not, but the feat had thus far only been achieved by those with greater greenhouses and greener thumbs. But if the Gardener succeeded, well, who could possibly blame him for the years spent flipping through gardening magazines while neglecting the tedious tomatoes?

***

'It’s raining.'

'It’s not going to rain,' the Gardener snaps.

'Perhaps we could check the weather forecast? Or go outside together?' I watch the droplets slide down the glass. It’s so easy to prove, I think to myself. Why is it always so impossible?

'I’m a weather EXPERT,' the Gardener roars, punctuating each word by hitting his fist against the vents in the wall, the ones he closes whenever he leaves the hothouse regardless of who remains inside. 'Don’t you think I know when it’s going to rain?'

The structure has stopped shaking. I haven't. Every such conversation is identical; like the tune from the Macaw’s music box, the only variation is the length of my pause before I say the next thing. Because it’s true, it’s often the only thing that occurs to me.

'You're shouting.'

Predictably, the Gardener roars his denial; he had 'merely raised his voice'. He pounds his fist on the workbench, a poor substitute for my face but surely sturdier than the glass walls. The Gardener is more unhinged than I’ve ever seen him. I am very fortunate in that this— his worst outburst—has attracted the attention of the Macaw who rarely witnesses such things.

Swooping down from the ceiling, the black bird flies between us and alights on the Gardener’s shoulder. It’s concerned for me, but it does not concern itself with me, instead it coos softly and chews on the Gardener’s ear. To the extent that I’m terrified, the Gardener is now calm. He surveys me with cool contempt.

'You’re being hysterical,' he says.

***

'Come here!'

I freeze. I’m in a real quandary, if I call back, 'Just a sec' I’ll be berated for shouting, if I speak too quietly the Gardener won’t hear me. I’m expected to drop everything (quietly) and sprint over to him (also quietly).

'I SAID, COME HERE!'

(And instantaneously.)

'Have you watered these?' He gestures to the zucchini plants, budding with yellow flowers.

'Yes, and the tomatoes too.'

'Just answer the question. Yes or no, did you water the zucchinis?' His face is flushed, the features contorted.

'Yes,' I say. Sometimes I forget myself and point out that I’ve already said as much. Of all the labyrinthine rules of the hothouse, this one confuses me the most.

'When?'

'Two.' I know exactly what'll come next. Our conversations are cyclical, yet as inescapable as the circles of hell.

All of the Macaw’s utterances were things it had heard before, so that when the Gardener accuses me, 'You told me you’d do it at one', it squawks 'Two o'clock! Two o'clock!' repeating my words from earlier that day.

The Gardener never paid the bird any mind, of course, though sometimes he would tell it to shut its beak. Once, when the Macaw parroted back 'Shut up', the Gardener left the hothouse close to tears. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but I swear I caught a gleam of amusement in the bird's round, dark eye.

The Macaw was, by and large, sweet-tempered, its sudden flashes of anger as unexpected as the red patch blazing on its cheek. I had once kicked an empty watering can in frustration in front of it. Startled and squawking the name of its old master, the Macaw launched at me. I ducked, and it crashed into the terracotta flower pot behind me. The Gardener glued the pot back together, all the while shaking his head.

Other times, the Macaw succeeded in drawing blood with its thin beak and sharp claws. However, keenly aware of how it harvested the tomatoes so tirelessly, any ill will I bore it would bend like trodden weeds under the weight of my pity. There was another reason, too. You see, the Macaw had a habit of repeating three particular words.

'I love you. I love you. I love you.'

***

It’s been many years since my escape but I visit on the odd occasion. Whether it’s out of obligation, a desire to see the Macaw, or to find out how the new apprentice is getting on, I do not know.

The hothouse does not change but seems to diminish as the unruly, tall grass outside threatens to swallow it whole. Though no black rose has bloomed within its walls, by pure chance, or perhaps even the Gardener’s efforts, some are a darker red than their brethren.

The Gardener, now mellower, allows us to consume the tomatoes unpeeled. The juice bursts as I bite into one, and runs down my forearm, sweet and tangy. I sit opposite the New Apprentice and marvel at how the ugly overalls suit him so much better. Of course, it’s not the same garment, the fit is looser and the fabric less coarse. I want to tell him the hothouse is sick, swarming with parasites, not a hothouse but a madhouse. But while I have peered into other glasshouses—some worse, many better—the New Apprentice has only ever known the one.

The familiar warmth of the hothouse, inviting and pleasant at first, turns unbearable, the humidity suffocating. I can’t seem to acclimatise. I look between the Gardener’s corpulent form and the frayed, bedraggled feathers of the Macaw, wondering how much longer such a fragile ecosystem can possibly last. But now I realise, the roof vent is wide open; the Macaw could take flight. If it wanted.

Before I leave, I head to the rose garden to bid the Gardener adieu. I smile vacantly as he tells me there was a dark red rose in this row, and another in the next, and if only they’d bloomed in the same row together, why, that’s almost the same as one black rose, isn’t it?

Fantasy

About the author

Angela Volkov

Humour, pop psych, poetry, short stories, and pontificating on everything and anything

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